William Alanson White, M.D., who lived from 1870 to 1937, was a prolific writer, an effective administrator, and a tireless organizer. This article profiles the academic life of this unique American psychiatrist who began his career almost a century ago.
-Dilip Ramchandani, M.D.
History Notes Editor
By Lucy D. Ozarin, M.D.
Few people now recognize the name of William Alanson White, M.D. From 1903 to 1937 he was the superintendent of the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C., known today as St. Elizabeths Hospital. During the first third of the 20th century, he was one of America's leading psychiatrists. He served as president of the American Psychopathological Society (1922), president of the American Psychiatric Association (1924-25), and president of the American Psychoanalytical Society (1928). He also was a professor of psychiatry at the medical schools of George Washington and Georgetown universities.
White wrote the most-used psychiatric text for medical students, which progressed through 14 editions from 1906 to 1936 and, with Smith Ely Jelliffe, wrote a textbook on psychiatry and neurology that went through six editions from 1915 to 1935.
White played a major role in the introduction of psychoanalysis in the United States after 1910, advancing its role as a theory and treatment method through his numerous textbooks, articles, and speeches. He was also a mentor to Henry Stack Sullivan, M.D., who was able to gain entry to psychiatry at the wards of Saint Elizabeths.
White was born into a family of modest means in Brooklyn, N.Y. Before finishing two years of high school, he secured a four-year scholarship to Cornell University and went on to complete the two-year medical curriculum at the Long Island College Hospital and medical school. After a year of internship at a Brooklyn hospital, he secured a post at the Binghamton State Hospital in New York. He remained there for 11 years, gaining such a level of knowledge and skill that President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him superintendent of the Government Hospital for the Insane.
His early years at the hospital were difficult; the hospital was overcrowded, run down, and poorly organized. In 1906 Congress ordered an investigation, which White survived. Over the years he was able to secure funds to erect new buildings, improve treatment, and launch training programs for all levels of staff. The hospital grew to house 6,000 patients and gained a reputation as a high-quality mental hospital.
The mental hygiene movement begun in 1909 by Clifford Beers was of major interest to White. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, and in 1917 the organization's first publication, the magazine Mental Hygiene, carried an article by White on underlying concepts. He was interested especially in the prevention aspects of the movement.
As a prominent psychiatrist, White was often called upon to testify in court cases. The notorious Thaw trial in 1906 was an unsatisfactory experience for him, as was the Leopold and Loeb case in 1925. He was opposed to capital punishment and sought reforms in the treatment of prisoners.
White's role in psychoanalysis probably began in the 1890s when he was able to work with psychologist Boris Sidis at what is now the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Sidis was exploring disassociation and hypnosis. White sought to understand how the mind worked and used techniques of disassociation and hypnosis with his patients at Binghamton. When Freud suggested techniques for exploring behavior, White eagerly embraced his approach, visiting hospitals and psychiatrists in Europe many times. He publicized psychoanalysis through his speeches and writings. With Smith Ely Jelliffe, he started a journal in 1913 called Psychoanalytic Review, which is still published today.
In 1934 a group of physicians and lay people in Washington, D.C., honored White for his leadership in psychiatry and psychoanalysis by establishing the William Alanson White Foundation. In 1938 the foundation began to publish the journal Psychiatry. White lives on through the work of the foundation, which continues to contribute to psychiatric education and research.